Getting ready for your first cruise is daunting. It’s a little bit like flying when you check-in and go through customs, but then it’s also not. It’s like staying at a luxury hotel, but then it’s not. I mean, how do you prepare for this thing that is really unlike any other travel experience. For us, our first cruise was the Alaskan Passage from Seattle, so on top of the new experience, we are also visiting the USA and Canada for the first time. Nowadays, we’ve cruised many times on multiple lines and it’s natural. I can’t help but wonder though, how much better our first few cruises might have been if someone had given us some advice beforehand!
So, I thought I’d share my advice for new cruisers!
A quick question
What are your top tips for people new to cruising? Let me know in the comments after this article!
This article is all our own experience. Our bookings on all of our cruises to date have been paid for by us, and no part of it them were free or subsidised. That said, many of the links below are affiliate links, which means that I get a small commission if you click it and make a booking or purchase. I hope that you’ll use these links anytime you need to book a place to stay or activity! These small commissions help me to keep travelling so I can write and film more travel guides for you. I would never recommend anything I don’t or would not personally use!
Here are the top 11 things I wish I knew before my first cruise:
1. Cabin fever
I hear so many people say they don’t want to go on a cruise because they will be bored. This was both my dad’s and my father-in-law’s concern as well before we finally convinced them to try it. There is some perception that there is nothing to do on a cruise. This couldn’t be further from the truth. There is so much to do aboard a cruise ship, even a small one. For us, we picked the Alaskan Passage cruise because of the sights and ports, but as amazing as they were, we found ourselves wishing we had a bit more time on the ship!
2. Free activities
Talking about boredom on board leads me into talking about the free activities. There is some expectation that you have to pay for everything on a ship, but this is far from the truth. There are many free activities every day with one of the staples being the evening theatre show. This show ranges from Broadway-style productions to comedies, game shows, magic, and even circus acts. Elsewhere throughout the day, you’ll find free activities (variable depending on the ship facilities and crew onboard) like dance lessons, language classes, pool parties, live music, rock climbing, art exhibitions, enrichment lectures, and all sorts of other things. On one cruise we went on, there was a parachute making competition to see who could drop an egg from the top floor of the atrium and have it land safely intact on the bottom floor. There are often date and location specific events as well including ANZAC Day memorials, an equator crossing ceremony, Australia Day celebrations. Though some of the date-based events are variable depending on the ship’s location. A European cruise probably won’t celebrate Australia Day where an Australian one will. The point is though, there are so many options to choose from at no cost!
Many people get motion sickness on planes, in cars and on smaller boats. Of course, everyone also hears about people getting seasick on cruise ships. In practice though, modern cruise ships are much more stable than smaller vessels. They use various stabilisation technologies and will typically move slower if the seas are rough. For us, we felt some sea sickness on our first cruise aboard Jewel of the Seas. The most we’ve ever felt though was our second cruise on Dawn Princess between Sydney and Burnie. The weather was bad and being a smaller cruise ship, it didn’t handle the large swells as easily as a bigger ship. That said, we have never experienced it to the point of throwing up.
There are a number of techniques you can use, but the most important one to remember is that cruise lines have free medication on board and it is some of the best you will find! My recommendation though is to carry a bottle of MotionEaze with you.
This stuff prevents motion sickness and eases it using an essential oil blend. There is no medication to ingest, just soothing oils behind your ears. We find it works better than most medications. I’ve only ever been able to find it on Royal Caribbean ships or ordering it from the USA though.
In addition to MotionEaze, I keep some ginger tablets and more mild, non-drowsy seasickness medications in our cabin just in case. If you do this you know you are covered and in the case of ultra-bad sea-sickness just visit the medical bay for their tablets. Honestly, you probably won’t use it a lot, but if you do get bad motion sickness normally, take preventative measures like MotionEaze and ginger tablets on your first few days of sailing while you are getting your sea legs.
Then, if worst comes to worst and you get bad seasickness, head down to the medical bay and grab some of their free motion sickness tablets. They work wonders if you are already sick.
I see a lot of confusion about water. The water from taps on board, including your bathroom tap, is safe to drink. However, it is desalinated water so it can sometimes have an odd taste. I have also seen it occasionally come out an unusual colour for brief periods of time. So with that in mind, it is not a bad idea to take a water bottle with built-in filters, like these ones that you can keep full for drinking.
The water dispensers around the ship are also filtered, so you can use them to fill up your water bottles as well.
Prices for individual non-alcoholic drinks are not too bad on most cruise lines. However, they can quickly add up. Whether it’s coffee or soft drink. Alcohol can add up even faster. If you plan on drinking a lot, check out the drinks packages as they can be good value. For us, we find there are enough free options that there is no need to spend the extra cash. We save it for a few special drinks here and there. Typically, you can expect 1-3 free juice options at breakfast in addition to teas, instant coffee and hot chocolate. Lunch and dinner at the buffet will typically have 1-3 free non-alcoholic options in addition to tea and coffee. Other restaurants and cafes will typically have free tea and coffee options as well as premium options. So if you plan on drinking a LOT, then the drinks packages are worthwhile. If you don’t plan on drinking much, they are overpriced.
6. Speciality restaurants
On a cruise ship you have free restaurants, and then premium, speciality restaurants. These have an additional fee usually in the form of a flat cover charge that includes all you can eat food. Some, such as Izumi’s on Royal Caribbean, charge ala carte pricing. When you first cruise, you will probably skip these because there is so much excellent food already included in your fare. That said, these restaurants offer some of the best dining experiences you will find. Two that particularly come to mind for me are Samba Grill on Radiance of the Seas, and the Sterling Steakhouse on most Princess ships. These restaurants are themed and provide a completely different atmosphere and an air of something special compared to the main dining rooms. I certainly wouldn’t eat here every night, but it’s worth doing for a special occasion, or to take advantage of special deals such as Royal Caribbean’s “First Night Done Right”. Check out my articles on Royal Caribbean’s Chops Grille and Samba Grill for some examples of what speciality dining is like.
7. The main dining room is flexible
Many people are turned off of the main dining room experience because it feels like a rigid 3-course meal protocol with set menu’s that they might not like. In reality, though, it’s much more flexible. Want to try four of the desserts one night? Just ask. Want two starters and no mains? That’s fine. Need a vegan meal? Just let them know. Don’t want anything from the menu at all? Ask for something different. They can accommodate the vast majority of requests, just ask your waiter for what you would like and they will do their best to make it happen for you. On our last cruise, half of our main dining room meals were off-menu.
8. Room service
Continuing with food, room service is one of those other little splurges we sometimes do at a hotel. On a cruise, this used to always be free, but now many lines are adding a tray charge. In either case, it’s still a low-cost way to do something special, like have breakfast on your balcony as you watch glaciers go by.
9. Mobile service and WiFi
Practically every cruise ship is now equipped with both mobile service and WiFi. Beware using their mobile coverage though as it is typically classed as a maritime satellite service, attracting the highest roaming charges. I have however heard anecdotally that Telstra classes Royal Caribbean’s mobile service as USA roaming, making it relatively cheap (no guarantees there). WiFi is usually the best option to communicate off the ship. Cruise lines typically charge for minutes or days of access with packages available at a discount to keep you connected for less. Speeds are highly variable depending on factors such as where you are, the weather, and what other people on board are doing on the internet. That said, Royal Caribbean’s Voom service is capable of streaming video from YouTube and Netflix as long as you aren’t in a dead spot.
10. Tender ports
Our first and second cruises were all docked ports, so we were getting pretty comfortable. Then on our third cruise, we discovered that there were tender ports. We weren’t at all sure how to plan for these ports. A tender port is where small tender boats are used to ferry passengers to land because the jetty is too small or the water is too shallow for a cruise ship to dock. Tender ports are common in the Pacific Islands, especially the smaller ones like Mystery Island, Mare and Lifou. So how do you plan your shore excursions and your day? Well, if you book your shore excursion through the cruise line and the time you select is in the morning, they will make sure you get priority tender access. That means getting off the ship before most other guests. You will also be escorted to the tenders and to the excursion meeting point on land. If you pick an afternoon excursion you will most likely have to get off the ship yourself and find your own way there.
So when it comes to finding your own way, or just doing your own thing entirely you can plan on the tenders being busy for the first few hours in port, sometimes the whole morning. Typically there are tender tickets available on a first come, first serve basis for as long as there are queues of people. We’ve found this is always until at least 11 am but does sometimes extend to 12 pm. One person can collect all the tickets needed for their group and you will hear ticket numbers called over the ship PA system throughout the morning. Once your number is called, you can head down to the appropriate deck and you are off!
To recap, the quickest way off the ship is to do one of the first shore excursions of the day. Next, is to get in as early as possible for tender tickets. Finally, once tender queues have slowed down, you can head off the ship at your leisure.
Once you are ready to return to the ship, head back to the tender jetty and you will be on the next available tender back to the ship. Just be aware that there can be queues and you need to be back in time for the last tender.
Last but not least, one of the most confusing concepts for us Australians, tipping. Cruise lines have mostly made this super easy now so you don’t need to think about it. Many give you the option to prepay gratuities, and Royal Caribbean now just incorporates it into the cost of Australian fares. On board, extra gratuities apply to some services such as spa and salon or bar services. This is automatically added to your bill unless you have specific reasons to vary it. You can expect these things to cost around 18% extra in gratuities depending on the line. You can also choose to reward outstanding service with extra tips, but if you aren’t comfortable with it or have not experienced tipping before, there is no requirement or expectation to do so. Many cruise lines give you envelopes on the last day of your cruise for you to put cash in for anyone you want to give an extra reward to. Don’t feel obligated to use this, it’s just there if you feel someone really stood out and deserves something extra.
There are so many more things I could include, but hopefully, this list covers some of the key questions and concerns that first time Aussie cruisers have!
If you have more questions, let me know in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer them for you!